Landlords have certain responsibilities and obligations to renters. These include federal laws, such as the Fair Housing Act, as well as state laws governing responsibilities such as repairs and maintenance.
Make sure to see what your lease says as well. That way, you’ll find out what your responsibilities include as well as the landlord’s. You’ll also want to note if the lease contradicts the law in any way. If so, federal and state law supersede what might be in a lease.
Renters across the United States have three federal laws working in their favor: The Fair Housing Act, the warranty of habitability, and the right to quiet enjoyment.
1. The Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act protects people from being discriminated against regarding housing matters. When you’re applying for a rental property, landlords can’t deny you based on seven protected classes:
- National origin
- Familial status
Landlords can deny you for other reasons, such as credit score, income, or town occupancy limits, for example, but they can’t deny you solely because you might fall into one or more of the seven protected classes.
2. The warranty of habitability
The warranty of habitability means the landlord needs to provide a livable, safe, and secure dwelling. Generally, landlords must provide hot and cold running water, heat, electricity, plumbing, a property free from pest infestation, smoke detectors, doors and windows that lock, and a property that meets local building codes.
3. The right to quiet enjoyment
The right to quiet enjoyment means you can live in the rental property undisturbed. This right refers to two things.
The landlord can’t come in whenever they like or take back the property.
Even though they own the property, your landlord can’t pop in to hang out or look around. Your rent buys you the right of usage. You get to receive notice if the landlord wants to inspect, make repairs, or show the property to future potential renters or for sale, usually 24 hours’ notice. The exception is if there’s an emergency.
The landlord also can’t reclaim the property during your tenancy. They must wait until the lease is up, or in the case of month-to-month arrangements, the landlord must give you proper notice, usually 30 days.
You have a right to peace and quiet.
If you’re experiencing a noise disturbance the landlord can fix, such as a smoke alarm sounding when there’s no smoke or fire, the landlord needs to stop the noise.
All other landlord responsibilities
All other landlord responsibilities and obligations fall under state law, which varies by state. There are, however, some generalities that most renters can count on applying to them.
Returning the security deposit
Landlords have a time limit upon which they have to return your security deposit. The time period is usually 30 days, but depending on your state’s law, this could be a shorter or longer period.
If you damaged the rental property, the landlord can deduct what it will cost to repair any damage you caused. If the damages exceed the security deposit, you owe the landlord (if they ask for it). If the landlord intends to keep all or part of your security deposit, they need to itemize the damages and provide you with estimates or receipts along with any deposit you’re entitled to within the time limit for your jurisdiction.
Repairs made in a timely manner
Once you contact your landlord that something is wrong, they need to respond. Some problems need immediate action, such as a burst water heater or plumbing pipe. The landlord has more time to fix other types of problems, such as a leaky faucet or a torn screen, usually up to 30 days.
If your landlord doesn’t fix the problem in a timely manner, and you end up fixing it, you might be able to deduct from your rent the cost you paid for the repair. Speak to your landlord first if you plan to do this and get their permission because landlords can typically evict for nonpayment of the full rent.
Paying the property taxes and mortgage
Landlords are responsible for paying property taxes on property they own, and if they have a mortgage, they’re responsible for paying that too. If they don’t pay one or both, the property will eventually go to foreclosure. If that happens, you’re allowed to stay in the property for 90 days or until the lease is up, whichever is greater.
Making sure others are paid (HOA, lawn service, utilities, etc.)
If you live in a neighborhood governed by a homeowner’s association (HOA), the landlord needs to pay the HOA dues. Typically, the cost is passed on to you in your rent.
Regarding lawn maintenance, snow removal, and utilities, either party can pay. The lease should specify which party is responsible. If your lease is silent on this issue, find out before you move in who is responsible for paying these things.
Maintaining the property
The landlord is responsible for maintaining the property to keep it in a habitable condition. They need to make sure all your vital services are in working condition, such as the heating, plumbing, and electrical.
Tenants are also responsible for some maintenance duties. Tenants need to take out the trash, for example, and keep the unit in the same condition it was in at move-in time.
If there’s an HOA, and the landlord receives a fine for violations you’re causing, you’re responsible for paying the fine. The way this typically works is the HOA first sends a warning letter to the landlord, at which time, the landlord should notify you. Sometimes the HOA is mistaken, but other times, you might knowingly or unknowingly be violating an HOA covenant, such as not keeping the lawn mowed or not putting away your garbage cans. If you’re violating an HOA covenant, have been notified and don’t correct it, and the landlord is subsequently fined, you will likely be held responsible for paying the fine.
Appliances that come with the unit are usually the landlord’s responsibility to fix: the stove/oven, microwave, and garbage disposal, for example. The washer/dryer is usually the tenant’s responsibility, and the refrigerator can be either the landlord’s or the tenant’s responsibility to fix. Appliances are typically a case-by-case situation. Your lease should specify which party is responsible for which appliance if they break. If not, find out before you move in.
Providing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
Most states require landlords to have at least one working smoke detector. About half the states require a carbon monoxide detector as well.
A responsibility to neighbors
If a landlord receives a complaint from a neighbor about you, your landlord will probably investigate. They might first talk with the person who made the complaint and then ask you about it.
If the neighbor’s complaint is unjustified, the landlord will probably let the neighbor know you’ve been notified and leave it at that. If you were causing a problem, however, the landlord can ask you to stop doing whatever it is that’s disturbing the neighbors. If you don’t comply, the landlord might be able to evict you. If not, the landlord probably won’t renew your lease. Or if you’re a month-to-month tenant, the landlord might give you a notice to vacate.
Handling a fire properly
If there’s a fire in the rental property, the landlord has options. They might repair the damages, abating the rent while repairs are being made. Or they might give you notice, terminating the rental agreement.
If you caused the fire, the landlord might terminate the rental agreement and hold you responsible for all damages, including loss of rental income. Note that a landlord’s insurance will cover the premises but not your belongings. Renter’s insurance covers your belongings, which is the reason it’s a good idea to purchase it upon move-in.
Keeping pests under control
The landlord needs to provide an environment free from pests. If a pest infestation happens during the time you’re living in the unit, you have choices. You can handle the situation yourself or you can ask the landlord to handle it. Who pays for an extermination service depends on the situation.
You might be responsible for paying the extermination service if it’s likely the infestation happened from something you did, such as keeping an unsanitary unit, bringing in used furniture, or from travel, for example. It’s often difficult to prove what caused a pest infestation, so this is typically handled on a case-by-case basis. Note that as soon as you see pests, you should act or tell your landlord. The longer you let a pest infestation go, the worse (and more expensive) the problem usually becomes.
The bottom line
The landlord-tenant relationship works best when both parties adhere to their responsibilities and obligations. If your lease contradicts federal or state law, go by the law. If your landlord isn’t upholding their responsibilities and obligations, you might be able to break your lease, withhold payment, or sue your landlord in small claims court. It’s best to speak with an attorney or legal aid before you act. If you withhold rent, for example, your landlord could evict you. Your best defense is to know your rights.